The Twilight Zone (2019) is a bit of an oddity. The show is executive produced by Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg. Audiences may subtly be aware of the talents of both men as their own individual efforts have left an indelible mark on both the superhero and horror genre, but it seems their love for the work of Rod Serling clearly informed the tone they set for the first season. The premiere of the show showcased two episodes, “The Comedian” and a reimagining of a classic episode with “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”
The problem with remaking old shows in today’s climate is that no one seems to have the ability to bring fresh ideas to the table to make the older feel current. Fortunately, this issue doesn’t plague The Twilight Zone. In “The Comedian,” we meet Samir Wasson played with warmth and eventual bitterness by Kumail Nanjiani. He seeks laughs and fame from his stand-up routines he performs at a local comedy club but gets no response until he begins insulting people from his personal life. The catch is that the people he insults end up disappearing from everyone else’s memory and existence, showing boldly and proudly laughter almost always comes from pain, especially in the Twilight Zone. Nanjiani is likable in his role as Samir because he genuinely wants to bring people joy with his work and the problem, but his work isn’t funny. However, once another local comedian gifts Samir with the ability to be funny, it comes at too high a price. While this concept of high-risk, high reward is nothing new, table setting that premise in a comedy club is, and its small surprises like that make viewers invest.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is honestly a weak episode. The plot revolves around a guy listening to a podcast indicating the plane he is traveling in will crash, and all the passengers on board will die. The mission is to stop that from happening, but as anyone may guess, these actions only serve to make him look crazier. This episode suffers because the premise of something no one can see in a claustrophobic area has been done so much better by the original The Twilight Zone (1959). There’s nothing that pushes this episode’s lead, Adam Scott, into territory where you can’t wait to see what happens next. This is what can make the show great, as it always teeters on the line between brilliance and utterly missed opportunity. The helping hand is always tone, which fills you with uneasiness, but the saving grace is whether the story compels you to watch.
The third episode, “Replay,” is a standout. The story showcases an African-American college professor dropping off her son at college. She is followed by a racist police officer and is trying to stop her son from being arrested or killed by this man. Fortunately for the mother, portrayed by Sanaa Lathan, she has a camera that can rewind time. No matter how many times she goes back, though, she cannot manage to save her son. This is a technology-driven episode playing directly into the fear young African Americans face at the hands of corrupt officers of the law. More importantly, The Twilight Zone chooses to highlight the psychological torment people face in daily life when coming into contact with police who are suspicious of the way you behave or how you address them. The emotional toll of knowing no respect you give the law will be returned to you is a heavy but necessary conversation starter, and most audiences will be glad Peele and Kinberg decided to have it.
Episodes four through six feel like filler. “A Traveler” is about corruption in the Alaskan police force found by a traveler who turns out to be an alien. There’s no real lesson once the reveal occurs. While Steven Yeun is a great actor, he is underserved in his role as the traveler. “The Wunderkind” is about John Cho coaching a child to win the US presidency and how sometimes being older and wiser makes all the difference. This episode fails because you can see every twist coming. Cho is likable as the campaign advisor, but something about awards darling Jacob Tremblay came across like he was forcing it.
“Not All Men” has men becoming aggressive in a small town after they touch a rock and drink the chemicals within it. Tessa Farmiga and Rhea Seahorn of Better Call Saul are both excellent in the episode, and it’s interesting that the episode focuses both on the immoral choices of men and how women can feel attacked in relationships with men or just interacting with them in daily life. “Six Degrees of Freedom” is about a space exploration gone wrong, and this episode, while weak, does something memorable – it subverts your expectations and plays a double-blind with the audience.
Episodes 8 and 9, “Point of Origin” and “The Blue Scorpion,” are interesting looks into the human psyche and how life and our minds play tricks on us. To me, this is the greatest strength of the new version. In a good story, the writers and showrunners know how and when to pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet, and both episodes showcase what great performers can bring to an interesting story. Chris O’Dowd and Ginner Goodwin both deserve praise for their work in their respective episodes.
The best way to summarize the season finale is to call it a complete subversion of our expectations. “Blurryman” actively works to take us somewhere new and asks audiences to question their own reality. In the end, The Twilight Zone gets a lot of the feel of the original show right. The stories could be better in a few episodes, but overall even when you hit a bad episode, you always feel like a better one isn’t too far beyond.
Peele and company may not have added much new to the show, but the social commentary needed to get people thinking is alive and well within this new series. One other thing the show could improve on is more episodes surrounding social issues audiences can relate to. If Peele does that, he could be telling stories for years to come. Hearts may tense, and minds may bend, but that’s all a part of the joy of escaping to The Twilight Zone.